When walking around the town, we were struck by the cohesive architecture. All the major buildings in town were built around the same time! Around a hundred and ten years ago. The old hotel is rich with Federation Iron Works (lots of curlicues and swirls of iron on the balcony rails and corners.)
The volunteer at the Round House (the first prison and now the oldest building in town) explained the history of Fremantle as the story of doing things wrong. First the Dutch tried the area and soon decided it was horrible. Then the French gave it a shot. “Sacre blu! C’est terrible!” and went back home. Now the English got wind of the French settlement and couldn’t bear the idea of the Frenchies getting any corner of this new continent. The Brits wanted the whole thing!
So, not knowing French had given the west coast of Australia a failing grade, the English sent the resource they had lots of: convicts. The land was crap (our guide’s words, not mine). You had to put more fertilizer into it than you could ever get out in food stuffs and the sand just soaked up any irrigation. The place was crawling with big “rats” (which later they discovered were actually tiny kangaroos).
But the convicts had little choice. They built their own prison, which soon became too small so they had to build a much bigger one. No good trying to escape. Where were they going to go? In fact, that was about their reaction when they finished their prison sentence. What were they going to do?
They couldn’t afford passage back to England. Luckily, by this time, a lot of them were pretty good builders and with Australian Federation looming, England again sank some money into Fremantle to ensure they had a solid presence all across the continent. Thus the delightful downtown region.
Nowadays Fremantle is considered a suburb of the thriving Perth. An excellent rapid transit system connects the two. As a town in its own right, however, Fremantle was starting to get a little shoddy. Those hundred year old buildings were starting to wear out. Then came a shot in the arm: Notre Dame University bought one of the old buildings to revamp as part of their architectural studies. The results were award winning and soon more buildings received the same treatment.
Even today there are still old buildings getting the university make-over. The idea seems to be to take the building down to it’s bare bones, retaining the most interesting architectural features, and then rebuilding with ultra modern treatments and decorating with a few well placed antiques or unusual items. Even our loft was done in this style.
Now Fremantle is alive with music, arts, and performances. The streets are full of interesting shops and restaurants. (In fact, I think all of Perth comes here to eat on Saturday nights.) There are fascinating, narrow, pedestrian-only lanes that wind from one major street to the other. The dockside is thriving with different seafood restaurants where you will be waited on by university students from all over the globe.
Fremantle may have the history of doing things wrong, but its present, and I predict, its future will definitely be doing things right!